I care for nobody, no not I,
And nobody cares for me…
Actually, tempting though the parallel is. Brian did care. A lot. The problem was always finding someone to care that he cared…
Somewhere (I won’t check now, or this’ll never get written) in his three-volume study, Malcolm MacDonald suggests that a particular passage from one of Brian’s late symphonies suggests something of the sheer mental isolation which must have been Brian’s lot for so much of his life… I’ve been haunted by this thought for many years, as I have by a line from Peter Pirie to the effect that the dream-like quality of Vaughan Williams’ ninth symphony goes a long way to suggesting the actual experience of being old.
Curiously - given the age at which so many of Brian’s symphonies were written - I don’t hear the suggestion of great age in the music; far from being dream-like, Brian’s late works are, if anything, illuminated by a stark daylight. However, I do hear a tremendous sense of isolation - spiritual, emotional, and certainly intellectual…
In his third volume MM rightly gives great consideration to the varied musical influences on Brian - from Bach to Varèse - and he’s undoubtedly right to do so. However, I’d like to consider the role that sheer isolation played in Brian’s artistic make-up, and to suggest that much of the music’s value lies in its almost unique (yes, yes I know) treatment of solitude - and its bogey cousin loneliness. I’d suggest that one reason Brian’s work has not (and possibly never will) achieved wider recognition is that it tackles, indeed often embodies, one of our great current taboos.
It’s surprising how little the bulk of Western concert music actually does so. Strange, when it’s always been a staple of popular music - from Sinatra’s 4am blues, through the dirges of Leonard Cohen to the bedsit laments of Suzanne Vega or Morrissey. (Not to mention every Country and Western song ever written, God help us, or at the other extreme the great Scott Walker, the supreme exponent of the songs of Jacques Brel.) By contrast, the ‘classical’ world seems to have astonishingly little to say on the subject. Of course, one can point to specific exceptions - Sibelius’ fourth symphony, the quartets of Shostakovich, individual works of Mahler, Schumann, Wolf etc etc… One might even suggest that the subject is predominantly an adolescent concern, and as such unlikely to be of interest to ‘adult’ composers, but again I’d reply that this has more to do with our taboos than anything - and besides, with the eighty-plus year-old Brian we’re hardly discussing the work of an adolescent!
Brian was a deeply lonely man. Of course it’s true that he was married with a family, worked in the (presumably) congenial world of musical journalism, enjoyed friendships with Bantock, Simpson, Fairfax, Truscott et al, but for all this his music (and his personality, as far as one can tell from twenty minutes or so of interview on video) betrays an overwhelming sense of remoteness, of ‘apartness’. This sense can pervade whole works or - to my mind - the whole of the second symphony, and even most of the third. (Does that uproarious scherzo even suggest someone trying rather too hard to lose himself in rejoicing, as we are now assured is the case with Shostakovich at the end of his fifth symphony?)
Elsewhere the same sense of solitude informs whole movements - such as the opening of Symphony No 8, which seems irretrievably rooted in a profound sense of mental exile. Elsewhere, it occurs unexpectedly, tripping up and often trapping a composer apparently concerned with something altogether more purposeful. When Robert Simpson first began to proselytise on behalf of Brian I recall he made much of those sudden moments of stillness and repose which occur in the symphonies, characterising them in terms of a deep, planet-like stillness.
Similarly, Malcolm MacDonald (admittedly writing some twenty years ago) is often puzzled by curiously aimless passages of drift in some of the middle symphonies (such as No 14) which he attributes to stylistic struggle, overwork, or just plain laziness. I suspect it was similar passages which brought accusations of automatic writing from hostile critics listening to rough-and-ready early performances. but I don’t hear these moments in anything like the same way: to me, even some of the most becalmed, the most skeletal, seem engaged with a problem, and that problem is precisely that of an acute intelligence suddenly brought to a halt by the fact, and the realisation of, its own seclusion.
It’s difficult to think of exact parallels, in any of the arts. It’s true that there are painters - say, van Gogh - who worked in isolation, and others, like Casper David Friedrich, who portrayed it; while some of Lowry’s landscapes, such as his terrifying white seascapes, suggest an even greater sense of alienation than Brian at his most remote… The novel and drama are, practically by definition, concerned with human relationships, but traditionally isolation is an area of experience associated with poets - Housman, Cavafy, Rimbaud, Plath, Mandelstam, name your own. (It’s surely no coincidence that one of Brian’s most searing single works is one of his (comparatively few) songs, his setting of Blake’s bitter Sorrow Song.)
Among musicians one thinks of mavericks like Scelsi, Partch, or Sorabji, as well as those of Brian’s contemporaries whose careers burned out in long years of neglect - such as Boughton or Scott. And I’m going to have to mention Allan Pettersson (the Swedish composer often inhabits a very similar world and struggles with very similar demons, albeit in a far more tormented, apocalyptic fashion).
Of course, being an isolated composer is not necessarily the same thing as dealing with isolation. George Lloyd suffered two or three decades of isolation from the musical establishment, but although the works from that period inevitably have their own shadows, they remain predominantly extravert, social, involved with the concerns of, and written for, a wider outside world. I’d say the same is true of Ronald Stevenson, whose music, though neglected, has nothing to do with neglect and is famously engaged with the widest social and political issues. Conversely, I find that Sorabji’s music - though written in total isolation - seems content to be so, and has a self-sufficient magist air which may be one of the barriers to its appreciation by non-initiates.
Brian finally remains a special case - because of his longevity as much as anything, but also because of his peculiarly embattled frame of mind; indeed, if a novelist set out to create a fictional creative artist whose life and work served as a study of the problems and experience of isolation in extremis, he’d have to invent a character very like him.
Ours is a society which tends to assume that fulfilment is found in engagement; with other individuals, and with the greater world as a whole. The ‘creative artist’ is allowed to be set apart to a degree, but finally is expected to engage with society or risk accusations of solipsism, deliberate obscurity and narcissism; just as individuals who fail to engage on a personal level are automatically assumed to be unhappy, and unfulfilled - sometimes correctly. It was not always so. Other traditions - and our own, earlier traditions - have not been racked by a paralysing fear of isolation, have at times esteemed it as a possible (albeit rigorous) path to a ‘higher’ wisdom and eventually to a greater self-realisation and fulfilment.
It seems to me that Brian - possibly unwillingly, but quite inevitably - found himself following a similar path, not with any intention of becoming some kind of desert father of music, but nevertheless achieving on the way a kind of distraught wisdom, that a more conventional career could never have supplied. (By contrast, consider the stultifying example of an establishment icon like Boulez - who, hilariously, is reported to pride himself on his ‘continuing curiosity’; apparently unaware of the irony implicit in endlessly revising a handful of works, and programming ad nauseam a tiny handful of composers.)
One of the most fascinating aspects of Brian’s output is that the composer never seems to be satisfied - moments of replete serenity of the kind found in today’s ‘holy minimalists’ - loners too in a different fashion - are comparatively rare in Brian. Even the last symphonies betray no sense of finality, of arrival: for Brian in his solitude the questioning, the search - the journey - never ends…
to be continued…
© Kevin Mandry 1995 / NL118
Newsletter, NL 118